I have spent over half my life serving people, starting as a dishwasher when I was fifteen. In the past fifteen years I’ve been a busser, a hostess, a waitress, a cocktail server, a deli worker, a prep cook, and now a cheese clerk. Rule number one of the service industry is the same thing they tell nurses in nursing school: don’t talk about yourself to the patient. In other words, people are coming to you to ask your expert opinion about cheese or their blood pressure or whatever—they’re not coming to you to get to know you as a three-dimensional human being. They don’t care who you are.
Until I worked with a certain woman at a busy Italian restaurant in my early twenties, I’d always taken it for granted that everyone knew this rule. She was my own age but had never worked in a restaurant before. She’d just graduated from college with a degree in English and dance.
One night after work, she and I went out for a drink to commiserate. “I’m running around pouring people water,” she said, “and clearing their plates and everything, and it’s like—they don’t know anything about me. They don’t know I’m really a dancer.”
I stared at her for a minute and took another sip of beer. “You don’t want them to know that,” I said.
“But they look at me and think I’m just a hostess. That that’s all I am.”
“Honey,” I said, feeling for the first time like a veteran of the service industry, “that knowledge is what’s yours to keep. That’s your treasure. Keeping that private is the only way you’re going to keep from going crazy.”